by Diane Kochilas, author of Ikaria: Lessons on Food, Life, and Longevity from the Greek Island Where People Forget to Die
It’s a global world. A few weeks ago at my local farmer’s market, I saw kale for the first time. It took me by surprise. I live in Greece and spend a lot of my life on the Greek island of longevity Ikaria, where my family roots are. We have plenty of greens everywhere, dozens if not hundreds of edible wild and cultivated local species, which Greeks use in cooked and raw salads, soups, pies, mezedes, main courses, spreads, and even dessert. To see kale mania sprouting here, too, seemed just plain silly.
While I have nothing against cruciferous kale, I do wish more home and professional cooks would explore the enormous range of health-giving, nutrition-packed seasonal greens and maybe take a few lessons from the Greek kitchen while doing so. As a professional chef (Molyvos restaurant in New York City), I’d exchange tough, crunchy kale any day of the week for any number of the delicious, complex, delicate, flavorful greens I’ve learned to work with in Greece.
Greeks call the whole category of greens horta, which literally means weeds; there is even a verb for the act of picking them in the wild and a special deep-pocketed apron for collecting them. Bitter as well as sweet greens are esteemed.
In the wild, this time of the year, nature in Greece provides a spectrum of delicious greens that run the gamut, from rarities like bur chervil and Mediterranean hartwort to a whole range of peppery and sweet chicories, mustard greens, and more. Many of the same greens are cultivated and sold at markets all over the country, and many can be found in American markets, too. Among these are carrot tops, nettles, sweet and bitter sorrel, sweet and bitter dandelion greens, mustard greens, bok choy, collards, any other greens in the cabbage family (yes, including kale!), spinach, of course, green and red chard, and beet greens.
Greens are low in calories and high in nutrition. They are an excellent source of vitamins, typically A and C, and many minerals. Greens are also incredibly versatile in the kitchen.
Here are a few ideas and tips for cooking them the Greek way:
1. Boiled Greens as Salad: The most common way to eat greens the traditional Greek way is to trim then blanch or boil them in lightly salted water. Dress them with extra-virgin olive oil and either lemon or vinegar and a little sea salt.
Tip: Use the boiling liquid. Most of the vitamins and minerals in greens are water-soluble. Don’t throw the cooking liquid away! Use it to cook pasta or rice, or add it to the liquid in soups and sauces. Or, do what a really traditional Greek cook would do: drink it!
Tip: As a general rule, bitter greens are dressed with vinegar, and sweet greens, with freshly squeezed lemon.
2. An Easy Greens Stew as a Main Course. Sweet greens make a delicious meal when cooked in a stovetop casserole with onions, leeks, garlic, fresh herbs such as mint and dill, and good-quality canned tomatoes. There are dozens of dishes like this in the regional Greek kitchen. You can eat a greens stew as a stand-alone meal, and pair it with a bit of feta and good bread to make it more nutritionally complete; you can also use stewed greens over rice or pasta, or with rice or potatoes cooked in the same pot as the greens.
3. A Greek-style Smoothie Dip! Mix boiled greens with Greek yogurt, garlic, and extra-virgin olive oil and make a delicious, easy, and nutritious dip. Beet greens are especially delicious this way.
4. A Greek Pairing: Heed the advice of old and spry Ikarians on the Blue Zone Greek Island where people forget to die. Eat your greens every day, and marry them with beans! It isn’t by accident that so many bean and greens combinations exist in the “poor” diet of places like Ikaria: Beans are rich in iron, but in a form our bodies don’t absorb easily. Greens are rich in vitamin C, which is necessary for helping our bodies absorb that iron!
And below are a two recipes from my new book that, along with the ideas above, give you loads of delicious ways to eat well the Greek way…easy!
Spicy Black-Eyed Peas and Greens with Smoked Herring
Makes 4 to 6 servings
- 1 pound / 450 g dried black-eyed peas, rinsed
- 2 large red onions, finely chopped
- 1 or 2 fresh or dried chile peppers
- 2 pounds / 1 kg collard greens or kale, trimmed and coarsely chopped
- 1 cup extra-virgin Greek olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Smoked herring fillets, Greek lakerda (salted mackerel in olive oil), or salted anchovies or sardines, rinsed
1. Place the black-eyed peas in a large pot with ample cold water and bring to a boil. Remove, drain, and return to the pot with enough fresh water to cover by 1 inch / 2.5 centimeters. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook until the black-eyed peas are tender but al dente and the liquid has reduced by at least half, about 30 minutes.
2. Add the onions, chile(s), collards (or kale), ½ cup of the olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook until all the vegetables are tender and there is almost no liquid left in the pot, another 30 minutes or so.
3. Remove pot from the heat to cool slightly then mix in the remaining ½ cup of olive oil. Serve either with the fish on top or on the side.
Lemony Chickpeas Braised with Chard and Dill
(Revithia me Seskoula kai Anitho)
Makes 4 to 6 servings
- ½ pound / 225 g dried chickpeas, soaked overnight
- 1 cup extra virgin Greek olive oil
- 1 large red onion, coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)
- 2 carrots, diced
- 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1½ pounds / 750 g green Swiss chard, coarsely chopped
- Juice of 2 lemons
- 1 cup snipped fresh dill
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Drain the chickpeas and transfer to a pot with enough fresh water to cover by 2 inches/ 5 cm. Bring to a boil over medium heat, reduce to a simmer, and cook the chickpeas until they are tender but not mushy, about 1½ hours. Reserving the cooking liquid, drain the chickpeas and set aside, covered.
2. Preheat the oven to 375°F / 190°C.
3. In a large, deep skillet or wide pot, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and carrots and cook, stirring, until glistening and softened, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and stir all together for a few minutes. Add the chard to the pot and cook just until wilted.
4. Transfer the chickpea and vegetable mixture to an ovenproof glass or ceramic baking dish. Pour half of the remaining olive oil, half the lemon juice, and enough of the reserved cooking liquid to come just below the surface of the chickpeas. Stir in the dill, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
5. Cover with the lid (or parchment paper and then foil) and bake until the whole mixture is dense and creamy, almost like porridge, but with the chickpeas still holding their shape, 35 to 40 minutes.
6. Stir in the remaining olive oil and lemon juice. Adjust seasoning. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.
Diane Kochilas is the author, most recently, of Ikaria: Lessons on Food, Life and Longevity from the Greek Island Where People Forget to Die (Rodale 2014). She runs the Glorious Greek Cooking School on Ikaria every summer and is the collaborating chef at Molyvos Restaurant in New York City.